Welcome to Radiohead Week, Stereogum’s weeklong celebration of all things Thom, Jonny, Colin, Philip, and Ed. Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of The Bends, the first of what would become a long list of classic Radiohead albums. We’re celebrating the occasion with a full week of features dedicated to Oxford’s favorite sons. (Sorry, Supergrass.)
Few artists can stand up to Radiohead in terms of acclaim, influence, or popularity. They’ll go down as one of the greatest bands of their generation, and rightfully so. To some of us, they are THE greatest: I touched on my own fanatical devotion in a Thom Yorke career retrospective two years ago, and as the passionate outpouring in the comments section revealed, there’s an army of us out there, people for whom this band became a constant source of inspiration and a musical through-line of sorts.
What do we see in them? There is the pure beauty, of course: Yorke’s soaring falsetto, Jonny Greenwood’s mangled guitar heroics, Colin Greenwood and Philip Selway’s utterly musical rhythm section, whatever the hell Ed O’Brien does. (His contributions aren’t always as distinct, but as a founding member of Radiohead, he’s distinctly awesome anyway.) There is a sense of weightiness, the feeling that this music was addressing matters of real importance both personal and global; Yorke’s knack for crushing despair has been applied to everything from social awkwardness to massive global conspiracies, and although his reputation disputes it, he’s just as good at communicating tender warmth (“House Of Cards,” goddamn) and tingly elation (“Airbag,” GODDAMN).
There is also the breathless thrill of transformation, tracking the giant leaps from album to album and marveling that the same band that broke through with “Creep” was responsible “Paranoid Android,” “Idioteque,” and “Bloom.” That constant metamorphosis resulted in a massively diverse body of music — something for everyone, really. On the other hand, changing their style so much amplified the polarizing qualities that were already inherent in their music, and if we’re honest, shaking our heads at the haters was probably part of the appeal too. A third consequence of all that transformation is that news of a new album always brings with it an electric sense of anticipation: What will they do next? Can they possibly ascend to such great heights again?
We’re in that phase again now, wondering what this ninth album in progress might sound like and whether it will find Radiohead scraping the stratosphere again. The future is often depicted as terrifying in Radiohead’s music, but in terms of the music itself, there’s always a trace of hope. (Or as Yorke might put it, “If you think this is over then you’re wrong.”) In the meantime, there are plenty of past glories to revisit. Check back here all week for features, lists, essays, interviews, and more.
[Photo illustration by Michaela Schuett.]